the 30 most important seconds of your thesis defense

I’m on a lot of dissertation committees. While most of the committees are for students in my department, many are not in my area of operations research. I’m surprised at how hard it can be to follow along to the bigger picture and/or to the technical details. Even when I completely understand the technical details, I usually do not know enough about the specific research niche to characterize the dissertation’s contribution or novelty.

I tell students that the most important part of their thesis or dissertation defenses are the 30 seconds when they summarize the key contributions of their research at the beginning of the dissertation. I’ve been to defenses and proposal defenses where this has been unclear, and confusion follows. A lot of confusion.

The 30 second elevator speech is an important skill, because academics (and non-academics too) spend a lot of time trying to sell their ideas (literally!) to people with technical expertise in another field. The 30 second elevator speech is a necessary but not sufficient first step to communicating with others, and a thesis or dissertation is a great place to get started with this.

Additionally, all committee members want to understand what a student’s research is trying to accomplish and how it will fit into the literature. We need help to get there. Not all committee members seek to understand all the technical ideas, especially if they are outside your area, but we all want the Big Picture. Admittedly, guiding your committee through the Big Picture this will take more than 30 seconds, but doing so will lead to fewer questions later on.

A good thesis offense starts by hitting your committee with a 30 second elevator speech, not a sword. Thesis defense comic courtesy of xkcd.

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One response to “the 30 most important seconds of your thesis defense

  • prubin73

    I would argue (and I doubt I’m the first) that if you can’t explain your research in 30 seconds, either it’s really abstruse or you don’t fully understand it yourself. Also, the xkcd panel needs a disclaimer: not applicable in Texas (where the entire committee is strapped) or New Jersey (where at least some of the committee have Family, if you know what I mean).

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